The Pentagon has confirmed that from next year transgender individuals will be able to enlist in the US military. Serving officers will also be allowed to use the military medical system to change gender.
Lifting the ban on transgender service members is "the right thing to do, and it's another step in ensuring that we continue to recruit and retain the most qualified people," Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters Thursday.
"Our mission is to defend this country, and we don't want barriers unrelated to a person's qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who can best accomplish the mission," Carter added.
The decision follows a similar acceptance of gay troops in 2011 after the failure of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, where homosexuals serving in the US military were encouraged to keep their sexuality a secret. Last year, the US also ordered all military roles - including combat positions - to be opened to women.
Carter said the new transgender policy takes effect immediately but many elements of the plan will be rolled out over the next year. Transgender individuals enlisted can no longer be discharged or denied reenlistment and can now service openly.
New welcoming policy
Under new guidelines, the US military will cover medical expenses related to gender reassignment surgeries when they are deemed "medically necessary." Service personnel can apply for medical support from October 1.
Then from July next year, transgender personnel who met the necessary physical and mental requirements can sign up to serve in the military.
An estimated 2,500 active duty service members are transgender, according to a RAND study, with a further 1,500 reserve troops.
At least 18 countries already allow transgender personnel to serve openly in their militaries, Carter said, including Britain, Israel and Australia.
The move was welcomed by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who said the new policy provided "much needed clarity" and would allow transgender troops "to continue to serve without living a lie."
The old guard wary
But several senior military leaders have complained that the department is moving too fast and that more time is needed to work through the changes.
Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said he was concerned the move could lead to troops not being ready to deploy for medical reasons.
"This is the latest example of the Pentagon and the president prioritizing politics over policy," Thornberry said, adding that national security was dependent on US troops being medically ready and deployable.
The US military conducted a six-month study into the plan, which analyzed extensive medical and scientific research and included discussions with other nations and companies with experience in the process.
mm/bw (AFP, AP)